"I learnED French at school. Spent 10 years doing French and can't speak a word." Sound familiar? Disillusioned scepticism is a common challenge faced by language teachers at parents' evenings. "I was never any good at languages at school." "We didn't do Spanish, so I can't help."
"Stop right there," you feel like saying. Basta! Unwittingly cast in the role of counsellor, you try some positive thinking: "The first step is belief, and fortunately most young children have it in spades. Don't write them off before they have given it their best shot. Try a little role reversal and let them teach you."
But when language learning is so much fun, you can't help wondering where it all went wrong for previous generations. The answer lies in the naive assumption that you need to learn the language before beginning to speak it, that everything needs to be in place before you can open your mouth.
The opposite is true, and the younger the children you teach, the more obvious this becomes. Children are impatient creatures. Once they pick up a few words they want to get on and use them, and pretty much straight away they will start asking how to say the next thing that is on their mind, however incidental. The more integrated approach that is increasingly taking hold in schools acknowledges and responds to this instinct in children and fosters a more intuitive, organic style of learning: give children the grammar they need to express themselves when they need it, never mind the gaps in their knowledge.
Gaps are normal in first-language acquisition, so why not in second? Isn't this the beauty of learning another language? It's not your own, so why assume that you should get it right all the time? The idea is absurd. Modern language learning should be the most liberating, not the most inhibiting, of subjects, releasing us from the straitjacket of accuracy and allowing us to embrace human error, together. How many foreign speakers of English do you know? Do they make mistakes in the language? Yes. Do you understand them? Yes. Go for the broad brushstrokes of syntax; so long as you get your point across, the job is done.
By daring to speak, mistakes and all, by daring to be vulnerable, you show trust in others and send out the all-important message that caring enough to communicate matters more to you than preserving that facade of polished perfection.
So, parents, let your children jump in at the deep end. And teachers, don't try to go in straight lines. Language is not a Roman road (although the written form might mislead you into thinking so), more an exuberant garden of forking paths, some complete, some still under construction. It's messy but fertile and, above all, real. Don't learn it, live it.
Dr Heather Martin is head of modern languages and curriculum coordinator at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge
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